The young man struggled to stay on the surface of the sandy brown rip current, his eyes wide and terrified. A minute ago he’d been wading in knee deep whitewater along Kuta Beach. Now he was being swept beyond the head-high breakers and was drowning. He was silent. He he made no cry and gestures for help. I just happened to see him from the peak I was on and dashed over. He clutched onto the board with a death grip and didn’t let go. I had to pry his hands loose to get him prone on the board and then swam, using the leash to tow him out of the current, and timing the dumping breakers to get him to the beach. Once we were in shallow, rip-less water, he staggered to the sand and collapsed, still not having said a word.
Another time, I was walking on the beach, board under my arm, and a bare-breasted tourist was in the water about ten feet away from dry sand, and struggling against a thigh-deep current and panicking. “Help me!” she cried. “Help me!” I stepped into the water and extended the nose of the board for her to grab onto. She yanked on the board with terrific force, yanking me toward her. She threw away the board and wrapped her arms around me, my head pressed into her bosoms. I was facing death by mammary suffocation, but managed to extricate myself and get her to the beach.
Anybody who’s surfed Kuta for any length of time over the years has similar stories. The beach is world famous, attracts non-swimmers from all over, who have no clue about the dangers of surf and currents and how the scoured sand can abruptly fall away, knee-deep water suddenly head-high. The Balinese lifesaving crew save many lives, but they can’t watch everybody on that mile long beach. (In fact, in the mid 80s, we had an exchange student stay with us—she went swimming at Kuta, got caught in the current, and the Balinese lifesavers pulled her out unconscious. Another minute she would have been dead. There were swimmers and surfers around her, too, but it happened so quick and so quietly nobody noticed).
What I learned myself from my own limited lifesaving experience (about six rescues—not bragging, just being in the right place at the right time) is that drowning is a quiet and desperate process. None of that shouting and waving hysteria you see on TV. As a matter of fact, this was the crux of a important study done in on a New York beach in 1970, the heart of which was seventeen minutes of film of real life swimmers in trouble and their rescues.
(More information at “Drowning doesn’t look like drowning” by a water rescue expert).
I’m sure that clueless visitors have been drowning at Kuta for a long time—in the 19th century, Kuta was an important trading port, the small boats of the time anchoring close to shore in the southeast trades (Benoa harbor was the favored port during the wet season westerlies).
In her book “Our Hotel in Bali” (a memoir of an American couple who built a hotel on Kuta before WWII), Louise Koke tells of one unfortunate man who drowned there in 1938. He was a European who was staying at the Bali Hotel in Denpasar (the five star hotel of the era—about the only hotel, too, apart from the Koke’s Kuta Beach Hotel, snootily dismissed by the Bali Hotel as “dirty native huts.”) The man ewent to Kuta with a friend for a swim. Friend reported he’d gone missing, and guests from the hotel found him floating dead in the water beyond the breakers. This is the first recorded Kuta drowning I’m aware of.